While her title as manager of the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge calls to mind a park ranger, roaming through woods largely untouched by man, researching wildlife and documenting natural ecosystems, Clardy said a lot of her day is filled with paperwork and coordinating planning with other refuge sites in the state.
“I kind of forgot what a normal day is like,” Clardy said Friday from the information center for the refuge, a single trailer off of Bains Gap Road, east of Anniston and McClellan. “Some days I answer emails all day, sometimes something happens and I don’t even get that far.”
Saturday is all about the outdoors, however, as the refuge, created from land abandoned by the Army when it closed Fort McClellan in 1999, celebrates its 10th anniversary with an all-day conservation festival. The festival includes nature and archaeological hikes and education presentations. Clardy said Friday she hopes she can attract 200 people for Saturday's events — a number which she said she can’t decide is “crazy or conservative.” She estimates the refuge receives between 500 and 1,000 visitors annually.
“We have 10 people signed up for both hikes, which is great,” she said. “If we get 20 people all day I’ll still be excited.”
The refuge could use any visibility it can get. Ten years ago the land was set aside for use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a preserved habitat for one of the biggest natural population of mountain longleaf pines in the Southeast. Now, little marks the area as an attraction to the public. Hiking trails and nature observance areas have been restricted throughout most of the refuge as the Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates with private contractors to clear areas of unexploded ordnance left over from Army training. Six thousand acres of the park, or about two-thirds of the total land, is unavailable for public use.
“The goal for the conservation fest is to show people what we’re doing, and what they can do here,” Clardy said. “It’s also to say we’re still making progress on clearing the land.”
It’s a process, Clardy admits, that looks slow from the outside.
“From the public’s perspective, I think they expected it to be done quicker,” Clardy said. “The most common question I get is, ‘When is it all going to be open?’ And there’s no real answer.”
When land can be cleared is largely based on other people’s timetables, Clardy said. It also depends on how much money the Department of Defense allots the wildlife refuge at any given time, with the price tag on clearing one acre of land approximately $30,000, Clardy said.
The refuge has also played only a small part in the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce’s recent tourism rebranding campaign — A Natural Attraction — designed to highlight the county’s outdoor activities. Chamber tourism director Ebonee Thompson said the chamber hopes to work more closely with the refuge in the future.
But Clardy said Saturday's event is the start of looking at the future and preservation for the area. In particular, she said, a partnership with Jacksonville State University’s field school, whose staff will participate in the conservation festival, has helped get word out about the outdoor activities available. Researchers from Auburn University, Mississippi State University and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have also conducted studies in the area, increasing exposure to the unique wildlife at the refuge.
“The next 10 to 25 years is about clearing land and sustaining the wildlife here,” Clardy said. “We’re excited about what’s going on and moving forward.”
Saturday's conservation festival kicks off at 8 a.m. at the refuge’s information center on Baby Bains Gap Road with a nature hike. Events will run through 2 p.m.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.